By WILLIAM SHANNON
I grew up just uphill from Cheviot, one of Germantown’s riverfront neighborhoods. Over the years, I often walked the family dog down to the town park and boat launch at Cheviot, an area which used to be a bustling shipping center. One usual feature of the trips was that, as the dog and I would saunter up the hill on the way back, Rita Rifenburgh would open the front door of her house, offer a piece of cake that she’d baked and we would catch up for a few minutes. Her house is perched half-way up the steep hill looking out over a gorge that a small creek carved from cascading down sets of rocks as it spills into the Hudson River.
As time’s gone on, and I’ve moved to different places, the routine’s been interrupted. But, recently, as I was again walking up the hill, she stopped the dog and I and we caught up for the first time in quite a while. I told her of the interviews I’ve been doing and, though she had a videotaped interview a couple years ago shown at the local library, I asked if she’d be willing to do another for the record. She agreed. The following is a transcription of our recent talk.
WS: You grew up in Germantown?
Rita Rifenburgh: Yes, I did. Right on this road. Yup. It’s been my home for my whole life.
WS: Could you describe what your childhood was like?
RR: Well, it was just an ordinary childhood. It was nice. There was three other girls my age and we were always together, the four of us. Yup. One of them was my cousin and she lived right next door to me.
WS: What would you say are the biggest ways this area has changed since you were a young kid?
RR: From the horse-and-wagons to the automobiles. Yes. You could never look out your window or be out in your yard unless this road was lined with horses and wagons with fruit to go out to the long dock to be shipped to New York that night.
WS: Were automobiles just coming in when you were young?
RR: Yes, my uncle got the first one around here. An old Ford. And, boy, we thought it was great if he took us for a ride. He lived right next door to where I lived.
WS: He had a Model T?
RR: He had a Model T. And he took us to Spring Lake on Sundays to go swimming. Out someplace by Elizaville.
WS: How gradual was it that horse-and-wagons petered off?
RR: I think it was kind of slow. ’Cause I can’t really think back now and see a lot of trucks there. I can just see the horse-and-wagons.
WS: What are some of the other major changes you’ve seen?
RR: Well, the price of things. My grandmother used to give me twelve cents and say, Here, now you run across the road to the store and get us a loaf of bread.
And that’s what I paid for the loaf of bread. Twelve cents.
And, well, across the road, there used to be a store and a post office. But, that’s all gone now.
Oh, everything’s changed. I mean, I can’t tell you the major changes, because everything’s changed.
WS: Do you get more conditioned to change as you get older and see more and more of it?
RR: Well, I wouldn’t say for the better. No, because, since I fell, which was two years ago—and I was in the hospital for seven weeks—I’m not allowed outside by myself because I’m not capable of walking on anything that’s rough. So, I can’t tell you much that’s going on in the world now. You ask me about this room, I could tell you.
WS: Are you on the Internet?
RR: No, my son got me a computer and I had it for two days and I said, Here, you take it back.
I didn’t like it.
No, I have no Internet; none of that stuff. I’m an old-fashioned girl.
WS: It seems like the world’s gotten a lot faster-paced in general during your lifetime.
RR: Yes, it has. Yes, it has.
Everything’s a lot faster today.
We used to go out to see the night boat that took the fruit to go to New York. And, one of the girls met a fellow on the night boat and married him. And they settled down here.
WS: Did you ever walk across the river in the winter?
RR: Oh yes. Yes. In fact, two of my grandmother’s children moved across the river to Cementon and they worked in the cement plant. And then, when the river got frozen, we’d always walk over to see them.
WS: What’ve your greatest struggles been?
RR: Getting over this fall.
No, I’ve had quite a few things that weren’t nice in my life.
My husband got killed in an automobile accident.
I lost my first baby when he was six weeks old.
Things like that. Lot of operations I can tell you about.
But, I don’t know, I think people had more time for people when I was younger than they do today. They’re all so busy. And, so much of it is mechanical. The friendliness seems to be gone.
All the people that I grew up with on this road—they’re all gone. Now, we have all people from other parts of the country moved in and it’s all different.
WS: This area probably always drew some people from New York City, but does it seem like you’ve seen an increase in people from outside the area?
RR: Yes. Most of the people that lived here have either passed away or gone to nursing homes. Then there was all the available houses. And people from New York City and Connecticut and all around have come in.
And, it’s the river and the mountains. The scenery. Everybody says it’s beautiful. And I see a lot of people come down the road, now with the color on the trees. They stop out here and take pictures of all the orange and yellow trees.
But, I hear the village is growing rapidly, too—I don’t get up there much anymore.
WS: What year were you born?
WS: You might be too young to remember the big fire on Main Street in Germantown. I think it was 1923.
RR: Well, I know about it. But, the only time we ever got up to the village was in my uncle’s Model T. He would take us up on a Sunday or something to get ice cream and bring it back home. And they did have a movie theater in the village. And we used to walk up—the four girls I told you about—we used to walk up the railroad, to the main road and up to the village and go to the movies.
WS: Was there any electricity or plumbing in your house growing up?
RR: No, there was none of that stuff. We didn’t know what it was. No.
WS: When did all that start coming into this area?
RR: Well, after my grandfather and grandmother died, then I got married and we bought that house that we always lived in. Well, we really didn’t buy it. I mean, her children signed off and said I could have it. So, when did electricity come in? After we were married for a while, then we got electricity. And we got an inside bathroom.
WS: Were those things you’d heard about other people getting?
RR: I rarely went in other people’s houses and I didn’t see how they lived or anything. But everybody was always coming to visit my grandmother. ’Cause she was a real good cook and everybody knew that. And, when they came, she always gave them something.
I think the biggest change to me was the electricity.
Because everything else required so much work and when electric came, you just pushed a button or snapped a switch and there was what you wanted.
WS: What did you do for light at night before electricity?
RR: We had lamps. Kerosene lamps. And my grandfather was real old and he couldn’t get up the stairs very easy, so, every night, I had to carry a kerosene lamp up the stairs to light his way to his bedroom.
I remember that so well.
You had to wash chimneys all the time on the lamps. Fill ’em with oil.
Yes, so that was a big change. Electricity.
A lot of other people had it before we did, yeah.
And, for entertainment, my grandmother and I played tiddlywinks.
WS: What was a typical summer day like for you when you were eleven or twelve?
RR: Well, my cousin lived right next door to me, so she and I were always out in the yard playing. That’s about all I can tell you. And the four of us, the four girls, there’s a stone floor over here by the creek and we always had our lunch over there on the stone floor. That was nice. We had to walk up the creek, all the way up. A lot of people nowadays don’t know that stone floor’s over there. I’ve told several people and they say, What?
It’s flat rock, but it’s high and you look down and see the creek.
WS: What was the effect at the local level during World War II?
RR: I don’t think things changed so much here.
My husband went in the service. He was sent to the Galapagos Islands.
WS: You two were married before he went?
RR: Oh yes. We were married in ’36.
He and Vince Holsapple and a couple others went to Hudson to the courthouse, all on the same day.
WS: And what did he do in the Galapagos Islands?
RR: Heh. I don’t know, from the stories he told me—. They had some goat there that came to the table every night and they’d all feed it beer and the poor goat got drunk every night. And they had a grand time watching it walk away.
I don’t really know what they did on the Galapagos Islands. Probably just a watch-out place.
WS: What did you do for work?
RR: I worked in the bank in Germantown. Sixteen years. I was the head teller and then I had another name added to it, but I don’t remember now what it was. I would order the money and talk to the Brink’s man.
WS: Did you ever see Eleanor Roosevelt in this area?
RR: Yes, I shook hands with her. Up at the Anchorage. We met on a corner going around a building and we shook hands.
WS: What was your impression of her?
RR: I thought she was very nice. Yup.
WS: Is there anything that comes to mind that we haven’t covered yet?
RR: Oh, probably a lot of things.
I could tell you how we used to chase the birds out of the cherry tree.
My grandfather had a rocking chair on the back porch. And he had a big, long string tied to tin cans up in the tree. And he’d call me over and I’d sit on his lap and we’d pull the string.
And you ought to have seen those birds fly.
And he did have a beautiful garden. Grew all his vegetables. And the horses provided the food for the vegetables. He’d give me a pail and tell me to go out and get some food for the garden.
Oh, it was so different. It really was.
WS: Do you ever find yourself wishing it was still like that?
RR: Yeah. I do.
Especially now, since I can’t go out. Just have to sit here.
Every day at five o’clock, Bruce calls me—that’s my son—wants to know who I talked to today. Most days I say, Nobody.
Yes, the world has changed.
The last time he was here, he brought me this television. I always had a little one.
WS: What are some of the things about growing older that you wish younger people would know or understand?
RR: How you feel.
No, if I hadn’t fallen—you know, I really was hurt all over and in the hospital for seven weeks—I mean, at this age, I think I would’ve been pretty good. Because I had all my illnesses when I was younger.
As time went on, I seemed to be better.
But, now, when winter comes he’s going to take me down again with him to Florida.
WS: You’ve been going there every winter, right?
RR: For about three years now.
Yeah, he has a house down there. And it’s in a nice section. It’s at a four-corners and the whole four families are real nice people.
Yeah, in fact, I got a letter the other day from one of the men down there. He says he and his dog are looking for me to come back. It’s a long walk, he says, and we have your place to stop and talk. Dog’s name is Peanut.
WS: Do you remember the first time you saw an airplane?
RR: No, I don’t. But, I’ve never been on one. I don’t want to go on one.
WS: How come?
RR: I want my feet on the ground.
WS: What’s your best advice on how to lead a good life?
RR: Be honest. Be honest, because if you lie and tell things to someone and then the next time you see the same person you might tell it differently. And they’ll say, That’s not what you told me last time.
I think honesty plays the biggest part in your life, really.
And, to be nice to people. Yeah.
WS: Does it seem like life has gone fast?
RR: Well, no. Because—I was just thinking, I didn’t tell you anything about when I had mastoid. I had this ear infection. The doctor came every day to do something to my ear. And finally they said there was no more they could do. And they took me to the hospital and they took this bone out behind my ear. And, that’s what they call mastoid. And, the funny things is—last year, when I was in the hospital, I was talking about that. And the nurse and doctor stood there. And they both looked at me and said, Mastoid. What’s that?
And, there they were, a doctor and a nurse. And mastoid—penicillin did away with it. There was no penicillin back then. And so I had to have the operation.
And, on account of that, I didn’t graduate from school.
Because it was right around graduation time and I was in the hospital. I was laid up, I don’t know how many months, with that ear.
I’m sure there’s loads of other things I could tell you. But, most of them are drastic so I don’t want to talk about them.
WS: What was your husband’s name?
Yeah, he was from Tivoli. There was a lot of Rifenburghs in Tivoli.
He was an electrical contractor.
WS: Have you found any silver linings in your struggles?
RR: Silver linings? Just that I’ve been able to live on this road all my life. I don’t think there’s many people who have lived in the same section of a town for 98 years.
I see all these people now, and they ask if I know who lived there before. Yes, I do. And I tell them all the ones that went way back.
And one time we had a spurt of fires around here. And the houses were all burning down. And they were blaming one fellow. I don’t know if he did it, but—. They ask me all about that.
WS: What is it about this spot of land that’s kept you here for 98 years?
RR: I think it’s the river and the mountains. I think so.
Except the fact that it’s where my grandparents were. Because my parents separated when I was three years old. So, I went to live with my grandmother. So, I really knew them better than I knew my parents.
We used to ride down this hill every winter. We’d go up to the top of the hill and ride all the way down on our sleighs. And not even think of trains—we’d go right across the crossing.
But, our parents didn’t know we went across the crossing.
WS: That’s all the questions I have. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
RR: I was just thinking of when I went to Sunday school up here to the Legion Hall. The one morning my grandmother got me all dressed for Sunday school in my best, you know. I came out the door, stepped off the porch onto the ground, and a great big rooster came up and jumped on me and knocked me down.
And it was muddy. I was a mess. I had to go in and bathe. Yeah, I always remembered that.
The next day they killed that rooster.
WS: Because of that?